In Germany, Declining Workers’ Rights Are a Life-and-Death Issue

The death of cleaner Refat Süleyman at a Thyssenkrupp steel plant has put the spotlight on Germany’s exploitation of migrant workers. It’s also a story about deregulation — and how outsourcing is letting corporations cut corners on working conditions with impunity.

Metal workers from Thyssenkrupp participate in a nationwide IG Metall rally in Duisburg, Germany. (Roland Weihrauch / picture alliance via Getty Images)

It’s late afternoon on Friday, October 14, and people are gathering around a small coffee table in a second-floor flat in central Bruckhausen, Germany. By the evening, the pile of shoes in front of the entrance stretches to the wooden staircase, as more and more unannounced visitors arrive, all asking the same question: “Where is Refat?”

Earlier that day, twenty-six-year-old Refat Süleyman, a Bulgarian worker from that country’s Turkish minority, disappeared on the grounds of Thyssenkrupp steel plant in Duisburg-Bruckhausen, one of several production sites in the region run by Germany’s largest steel producer. It had been Refat’s third week working as а temporary industrial cleaner for the Oberhausen subcontractor Eleman Limited, and only his third day in the steel plant.

Working a 5 a.m. shift with eight other workers, that morning Refat was reassigned to Buchen Limited, one of the other cleaning subcontractors on site, where he was teamed up with a foreman and a driver for a cleaning assignment around Gate 4. These two men were the last to see him alive before he was sent on a break in the company vehicle around 9:20. Refat never returned.

Several hours later, Thyssenkrupp and Duisburg police initiated a large-scale search-and-rescue operation covering the ten-square-kilometer steel mill site with sixteen search dogs, fifty-six staff, а drone, а helicopter, and several thermal imaging cameras. The family sees the official search as more of a face-saving measure on part of authorities and plant management. Video recordings shared a few days later show Thyssenkrupp search team members drinking coffee and chatting on factory grounds during what was supposedly a thorough search mission. In the meantime, it was business as usual for the plant owners, who refused to suspend production, while security guards threatened family members with penalties for trespassing on company premises.

Yet Refat’s family and friends refused to give up and launched an independent search along factory fences and adjacent green areas, while his work colleagues searched for him at familiar work placement sites. His body was only found three days later by another Bulgarian worker, who noticed a piece of his white protective clothing in a partially emptied slag pool. The concrete-walled basin holds toxic wastes such as slag, sludge, and other steel production by-products and is located in a protected safety zone serviced by Buchen. The industrial waste pond is directly overseen by a Thyssenkrupp office building only several meters away.

What Are They Hiding?

An autopsy report released a few days later officially confirmed suffocation as the primary cause of death. But since then, sluggish police work and growing inconsistencies in the case have stretched the patience of friends and family along with the Bulgarian community in Duisburg, who demonstrated the following Sunday to demand a swift and fair investigation.

Workers and their families point to the disregard for workplace safety at Thyssenkrupp Steel and the denial of basic labor rights and job security in the subcontracting sector that dominates industrial cleaning services. They ask why Refat was sent to a high-risk area on his third day on the job, without undergoing the necessary training and medical examinations as per basic safety stipulations.

If Refat really fell into the pool by accident, as the police claim, why was he left alone while cleaning the slag pool — especially given that the factory’s rules stipulate constant supervision and that workers should always move in pairs? Furthermore, if Refat’s body was laying in the pool for three full days, why were only his face and upper chest covered by the thick, unremovable layer of black slag, as seen on a (unpublished) postmortem photo?

The withholding of further evidence such as CCTV recordings and coworkers’ testimonies, along with the overall inadequacy of the police investigation in the eyes of the Turkish-Bulgarian community, have fueled speculation about what might have happened to him. Some believe that Refat was killed by a Buchen foreman in retaliation for intervening in a fight between coworkers a few days earlier. Others blame the Eleman supervisor who assigned Refat to Buchen against his will. Family members reject such rumors and instead suggest that he had unwittingly witnessed illegal activity by other cleaning contractors, for which he was eventually punished.

Those more familiar with the history of fatal industrial accidents in the region, however, fear the covering up of another workplace death caused by safety violations. While the investigation of Refat’s death remains ongoing, there is the no doubt that the poor working conditions common in subcontracting firms across Germany create an environment liable to accidents and abuse.

Exploitation by Design

Refat was one of about a million temporary workers in Germany, who make up half the total workforce in the cleaning sector, the most dynamic segment of the service economy, generating some €18 billion in annual turnover. Domestic outsourcing in cleaning services has become an established mechanism through which large companies reduce labor costs, rob workers of bargaining power, and circumvent tariff agreements ensuring minimum wage and safety standards.

The labor market niche in which migrant workers in Duisburg are forced to exist is almost entirely dominated by subcontractors, be it in cleaning, delivery, construction, or production. Thyssenkrupp Steel is a case in point. A ruthless cost-cutting strategy pursued by the company after a series of bad investments and stagnating demand saw a profound reorganization of production and the structure of work. A profuse system of outsourcing subsidiaries contracts out low-skilled jobs like cleaning to large external service providers, while temporary work agencies like Eleman or Europe’s largest player, Randstad, ensure a constant stream of cheap, flexible workers that can be fed into the production chain whenever needed and disposed of shortly thereafter.

Currently, about twenty cleaning subsidiaries with thousands of workers are involved in industrial cleaning at Thyssenkrupp Steel Bruckhausen. Half of all site cleaners (around thirteen thousand in total) labor under temporary contracts, an arrangement that puts them at a steep disadvantage in terms of wages, job security, and work safety. Bulgarian migrants form the bulk of the workforce, followed by Romanians and asylum seekers. Many describe the conditions as “slave labor” (robski trud).

Agencies like Eleman and Oberhausener Personalservice (OPS), which employed Refat are notorious among workers in Duisburg neighborhoods like Marxloh and Bruckhausen for failing to observe health and safety procedures. Workers complain that risks associated with the job are not properly explained, while safety trainings are rare and inaccessible as they are only provided in German. At the same time, instead of regular job training, they are forced into a “learning-by-doing” work culture that causes accidents even in the performance of routine tasks.

Salim (not real name) has been working for Eleman for less than two months but already performs dangerous tasks on a regular basis. He is often sent to clean the blast furnaces on a nine-meter ladder without protection ropes, or to suck up chippings from metal molding at 150°C without flame resistant clothing — tasks for which he has received no training.

Asked about Refat’s incident, workers insist that there are between ten and fifteen such cases per year, which the company sweeps under the rug. Some of the most common workplace injuries include severe cinder and hot-metal burns from cleaning around the blast furnaces, near-fatal falls when cleaning high cranes without protection ropes, and limbs lost while servicing turbines. Workers say that most accidents are not reported to Thyssenkrupp. They are often left to deal with the fallout on their own and strongly discouraged from filing compensation claims. Refusing to perform unsafe work usually results in threats of firings.

Beyond the work safety issues, being a temporary employee also means workers have few avenues to protect their rights. While Eleman employees earn the minimum wage on paper, unlawful deductions enforced by employers such as €80 for protective clothes, or €1.50 per day for transportation mean workers’ take-home pay is more like €8 per hour. This forces many to accept long hours and unpredictable work schedules. Overtime often serves as another arm-twisting strategy of employers who undercount or refuse to pay overtime hours whenever workers try to assert their rights. “I worked without a break for a month, I received payment for 80 hours and the rest was counted as overtime. When I requested the payment, my overtime was reduced by half,” says forty-one-year-old Petyo (not real name) who left Eleman a few months ago.

As a rule, temp cleaners like Refat and Petyo sign one-year contracts with a six-month probation period, during which the employer can fire them without reason. To avoid stipulations to equalize wages between temporary and permanent staff and transition workers into permanent contracts, every few months cleaners are rehired or shifted between the two affiliated subsidiaries. Additionally, and in breach of labor law, both employers deny sick leave payments. Most workers also report being denied access to their accrued paid leave.

Prospects are dim for workers at OPS, Eleman, and other subcontractors in Duisburg. “There are no safe jobs for us — there is always risk. You cannot be safe on a construction site, or when rushing to deliver another package. Only office jobs are safe, but we have no access to these,” says Metin (not real name), a twenty-two-year-old worker who is considering quitting.

Enough is Enough

The death of Refat Süleyman last month seems to have signaled a breaking point for many, and recent weeks have witnessed a flurry of activity by Turkish-Bulgarian migrant workers in Duisburg.

A protest march of Turkish-speaking Bulgarian migrants supported by their Romanian and Roma colleagues at the gates of Thyssenkrupp Bruckhausen on October 23 demanded justice [Adalet], not only for Refat, but also for the thousands of Eastern Europeans from minority backgrounds who work as temporary laborers throughout Germany.

A few days after the march, the Marxloh-based “Stolipinovo in Europa,” a grassroots initiative in support of Bulgarian migrant workers, launched a petition calling for a thorough investigation of Refat’s death and an end to subcontracting in industrial cleaning: “As the current lack of consequences from Refat Süleyman’s death demonstrates, the use of subcontractors with their opaque contractual practices in the cleaning industry leads to a non-transparent web of actors. They circumvent occupational safety standards and effectively avoid liability and for accidents and deaths.” The more recent case of a Thyssenkrupp employee, now fighting for his life after being pushed into a hot strip mill oven by a harness device on November 21, underlines that claim.

So far, the workers’ demands have received some attention from the German Trade Union Confederation (DGB), left-wing party Die Linke, and autonomous local collectives, all of whom recognize the structures of exploitation that determine East European migrants’ position in German society. Their fight links up well with recent campaigns in the care, construction, and meat industries, which have highlighted subcontracting as a systemic problem that undermines work standards, strips workers of their formal rights, and severely impairs occupational safety.

The DGB initiative focusing on the rights of migrant workers, “Fair Mobility,” notes that long subcontracting chains make it almost impossible for migrant workers to establish themselves in the German labor market. The recent mobilizations in Duisburg draw attention to the situation of migrants, whose struggles often go unseen by the wider German public.

In the past thirty years, labor-intensive sectors in Western Europe have benefited massively from the import of cheap labor from Eastern Europe, where economies have been hobbled by decades of privatization and deregulation. In Bulgaria, the Roma and Turkish minorities have borne the brunt of these neoliberal reforms. They continue to face widespread unemployment, extremely limited health care coverage, and are often cut off from basic rights and public infrastructure. Recent data shows a significantly lower employment rate among Turkish and Roma-origin males (65 percent and 51 percent respectively) compared to their Bulgarian counterparts (76 percent). Furthermore, 66 percent of all working-age citizens of Stolipinovo do not have health insurance.

Most Bulgarians in Marxloh, Refat included, come from segregated neighborhoods like Stolipinovo, a majority Turkish and Roma area in the city of Plovdiv, where they face racist discrimination and social stigmatization. Many make their way to Western Europe in search of a more dignified existence and a better future for their children, but after arriving soon find themselves in a similar predicament. Political scaremongering around so-called “poverty migration” has fed multiple legal measures curtailing migrant workers’ access to social rights, while encouraging municipalities like Duisburg to deploy a plethora of “deterrence” policies to ward off undesired migrants. Many face increased hurdles to applying for social assistance, ongoing police harassment, and widespread forced evictions. Ultimately, these measures only push them into even more insecure jobs and thus further onto the margins of society.

As in most sectors, unionization levels among Eastern European workers in industrial cleaning in Germany are close to zero. These workers’ lack of representation within trade union structures has made it much easier for employers to treat them as second-class citizens, and keeps them cut off from their coworkers in other parts of the factory. Now that Refat Süleyman’s coworkers in Marxloh have started to fight back, it’s up to the big trade unions like IG Metall and IG BAU to support their struggle and ensure that his death was not in vain.